In the mid-19th century an English minister, William Booth, left the Methodist church to become a travelling preacher, concentrating on slum areas. In 1865 he and his followers formed the Christian Mission. Renamed the Salvation Army in 1878, this was a noisy and unconventional church, dedicated equally to saving souls and relieving poverty.
War was constantly in the news in Britain at the time, and Booth’s church was run on strictly military lines. Its ‘officers’ held ranks such as captain and lieutenant, and wore uniforms, beat drums and waved flags. Morning prayers were known as ‘knee drill’, donations were ‘cartridges’, and starting work in a new district was called ‘opening fire’. The Salvation Army’s magazine was (and still is) titled the War Cry. The new movement spread rapidly across Britain and overseas.
In 1882 a devout Dunedin woman named Arabella Valpy wrote to ‘General’ William Booth, enclosing £200 (around $34,600 in 2018 terms) and asking him to send someone ‘to the rescue of perishing souls in this respectable and highly favoured city’1. Early in 1883 two young officers, George Pollard and Edward Wright, arrived in Dunedin with three helpers they had recruited on the voyage. The first Salvation Army meeting in New Zealand was held in Dunedin on 1 April 1883.
New Zealand was then in the grip of economic depression. Unemployment, crime, poverty and prostitution were widespread, especially in the cities, and the Salvation Army’s colourful and welcoming meetings proved hugely popular. As the band blared and young officers sang and banged tambourines, ‘unsaved’ people were invited to ‘surrender’, or kneel at a bench called the penitent form or mercy seat and ask God to forgive their sins. By 1886 the Army had more than 5,000 members in about 40 corps (local groups).
The early Salvation Army meetings were disrupted by groups of larrikins (disorderly young men), who shouted, threw stones and attacked the Salvationists during their services. In Auckland larrikins organised an alternative ‘skeleton army’, waving its own skull-and-crossbones flag. However the Army thrived on opposition. It set up local corps with militant nicknames such as the Wellington Warriors, Christchurch Conquerors, Invercargill Invincibles and Dunedin Dragoons.
Inspired by his wife, Catherine, Booth insisted that women play an equal role with men in the Army’s activities. That policy was very appealing in New Zealand, where feminist activism was strong and women gained the vote in 1893. Dressed in distinctive maroon uniforms with ‘coal-scuttle’ bonnets, women officers were in the forefront of the Army’s expansion. By 1892 they made up more than half of its full-time officers and headed its five largest corps. Despite theoretical equality, men have usually held the very highest positions. By 2019, only three of the 21 Generals (international leaders) had been women. An active officer could only be married to another officer, since they served together as a pair.
Unlike larger churches such as the Anglicans and Catholics, the Salvation Army did not start its work in New Zealand with Māori but in settler communities. However, individual Māori such as Joe Solomon in Kaiapoi and Maraea Morris in Gisborne were recruited in the church’s early years.
In 1888 Ernest Holdaway and his wife began a mission to Māori on the Whanganui River. They converted the chief Tamatea Aurunui of Jerusalem, who donated a canoe to help with transport in the roadless region. The mission was named Te Ope Whakaora (the group of lifegivers), and formed concert parties that toured New Zealand and overseas to raise funds. However, in other regions, especially those which had suffered in the land wars, Māori reacted suspiciously to the Army. Holdaway's mission closed after 10 years. Localised missions in Bay of Plenty (to 1928) and East Coast (1933–92) were replaced by a national strategy in the 1990s.
‘Go for souls, and look for the worst,’1 Salvation Army founder William Booth ordered his first followers. They responded by providing social services along with spiritual advice. In the Army’s first years in New Zealand, three rescue homes for prostitutes and unmarried mothers, and two ‘prison-gate’ homes for recently discharged prisoners, were set up. In the early 20th century, renamed men’s and women’s industrial homes, they provided accommodation in return for work such as sorting waste paper. Later they became night shelters and other forms of emergency accommodation.
David Robertson, the first sexton (gravedigger) at the Bolton Street cemetery in central Wellington, was an active member of the early Salvation Army. A tiny two-room cottage at the cemetery entrance (still tenanted in 2019) housed the Robertsons, including their 10 children. One daughter, Anne Rudman, became the first ‘soldier’ in the Wellington City Corps of the Salvation Army and spent her life working with prostitutes, the homeless and others in need. She insisted on wearing her uniform whenever she left her house.
The first Salvation Army home for girls opened in Newtown, Wellington, in 1903. The first boys’ home opened in Eltham, Taranaki, in 1909. Several more children’s homes followed. Most residents were orphans, although some had lost one parent, or their parents could not look after them.
Living conditions were harsh, and misbehaviour meant no dinner that night. ‘I hated every year I was there,’ said one former Eltham resident. ‘I used to look at the pillow shams [pillowslips] embossed with the words “God is Love” and think, “If you love us, why don’t you help us?”’2 As the government provided more social services, the homes were gradually closed or converted to homes for elderly people.
Between 1903 and 1912 the Salvation Army set up hotels in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to provide low-cost, liquor-free accommodation for travelling families. These People’s Palaces were run as commercial ventures, but staffed by Army officers who offered spiritual guidance on request. Between 1979 and 1994 all three were sold or closed.
Abstinence from alcohol and tobacco was basic to Salvation Army beliefs. In 1909, at the government’s request, the Army set up a home for alcoholics on Rotoroa Island, just east of Waiheke Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Treatment was limited to abstinence and spiritual guidance, and many patients returned to drinking heavily as soon as they left the island. With increased medical understanding of alcoholism, Rotoroa changed its approach and patients voluntarily applied for treatment. In 2005 its treatment services were transferred to mainland Auckland and the island became a conservation park.
During the 1930s economic depression the Salvation Army provided meals and housing to needy people through relief centres and soup kitchens. Thousands of victims of the 1931 Napier earthquake were fed and housed for many months.
Legislation introduced in the late 1930s by the first Labour government reduced the need for the Army’s social services, and the church focused on homes for elderly people and special institutions such as hospitals for unmarried mothers. As the stigma of pregnancy outside marriage decreased, these became ordinary maternity hospitals and were later closed or sold. In 2011 the last Bethany home, in Auckland, was closed.
The Salvation Army Family Stores, selling second-hand clothing, furniture and other goods, are a familiar sight in New Zealand towns. The first of these thrift shops opened at the Addington Men's Home, Christchurch, in 1964. Others were soon set up around the country. The sale of items donated to the stores supports the Army’s work and provides the public with low-cost goods.
Treatment of alcoholics has been central to Salvation Army social programmes from their earliest days to the present. However, in the 21st century drug addiction and problem gambling were equally important. In the 2010s residential centres and clinics such as the Bridge Programme and Oasis Centre in Newtown, Wellington, provided professional counselling and treatment services for alcohol and drug addiction and problem gambling. A 2016 study found that the Bridge programme’s recovery rates were equivalent to the most successful programmes worldwide. A nationwide network of more than 70 community ministries continues to provide foodbanks, budgeting advice, crisis counselling, advocacy and other services, though all Salvation Army churches offer at least some of these services.
The original Salvation Army was a way of life for its members, not just a set of religious ideas. The Army discouraged its members from gambling, using alcohol or tobacco, and wearing ‘fashionable dress and worldly adornment [such as jewellery]’1. At first, these rules attracted many followers. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which arrived in New Zealand in 1885, campaigned for votes for women and a ban on alcohol, and many Salvation Army women supported both causes.
Major Joe Perry of the New Zealand Salvation Army was a pioneer film-maker. In the 1890s he toured Australia and New Zealand with a magic lantern, an early type of slide projector, to raise funds for the Army. In 1896 his equipment was destroyed in a fire in Marton, but he obtained a movie projector and began screening films. Perry then began making some of the world’s first feature films. In 1901 the New Zealand government commissioned him to record the visit of the future British King and Queen. However in 1910 the Salvation Army in Australia shut down Perry’s thriving production business. None of his films have survived.
In the 1930s Salvation Army leaders regarded with suspicion the country’s passion for rugby. Until after the Second World War, young members of the Army were discouraged from entering university because of fears this would lead them away from the church. When television arrived in New Zealand in 1960, some in the Army feared that it would ‘introduce a lot of evil influence right into the heart of thousands of homes’.2
Lusty singing and loud music have been an important feature of Salvation Army meetings from their beginnings. Brass-band music proved to be one of the Army’s most effective ‘weapons’. Many bands achieved high musical standards, touring internationally and performing with major orchestras. The Wellington Citadel band was the first to appear on New Zealand television, in 1962. In the 2010s, Salvation Army brass bands performing Christmas carols in their maroon uniforms were still a common sight in most New Zealand cities.
In both world wars the Salvation Army provided chaplains, hostels and canteens to New Zealand troops serving overseas, and in military camps and cities on the home front. These efforts increased the profile and prestige of the Army among the general population.
The Salvation Army campaigned against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1985, taking door-to-door a petition spearheaded by a group of conservative MPs and fundamentalist businessmen Keith Hay and Peter Tait. In 2006 the Army's national head, Garth McKenzie, expressed his organisation's regret at the hurt caused by the church’s past activities and opposition to gay law reform.
New Zealand Salvation Army officers have worked as missionaries in many countries. One, Bramwell Cook, became chief medical officer of the Salvation Army’s Emery Hospital in Gujarat, India, in 1932. More recently, Army officers set up corps in Fiji in 1973, Tonga in 1986 and Samoa in 2018 (at the request of Samoa’s prime minister). In the 2010s activities in New Zealand and the South Pacific were run from the Salvation Army’s headquarters in Wellington.
The Salvation Army’s programmes of social work among the homeless, unemployed, addicted, imprisoned and other needy people were the most visible aspect of its work in the 21st century. Moving away from its earlier, strongly independent attitude, the Army worked closely with government agencies and other organisations. It also addressed the causes of social hardship, regularly advising and lobbying the government on policies affecting the most vulnerable.
By the 1990s the Salvation Army’s original emphasis on wearing uniforms and other military-style activities had decreased. Its national training college in Wellington’s Aro Street, which had opened in 1914, was replaced in 1982 by a new facility in Trentham, Upper Hutt.
By the early 21st century all Salvation Army homes for the elderly had closed, but support for the elderly in their own homes was a growing field of activity. The Salvation Army employed around 3,000 staff and officers nationwide, and had a further 5,000 soldiers, or dedicated members. There were about 90 Salvation Army corps (churches), including several for migrants from Vietnam, China and Korea.
More than 30 Salvation Army community centres provided food banks, budgeting advice, counselling and other services.
Bradwell, Cyril R. Fight the good fight: the story of the Salvation Army in New Zealand, 1883–1983. Wellington: Reed, 1982.
Bradwell, Cyril R. Symphony of thanksgiving: the life and music of Commissioner Sir Dean Goffin. Wellington: Salvation Army, 1994.
Hill, Harold, ed. Te Ope Whakaora: the army that brings life: a collection of documents on the Salvation Army & Māori, 1884–2007. Wellington: Flag Publications, 2007.
Many voices in mission: 25 years of the Salvation Army in New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga 1983–2008. Wellington: Flag Publications, 2008.
Sampson, Barbara. Women of spirit: life-stories of New Zealand Salvation Army women from the last 100 years. Wellington: Salvation Army, 1993.